Taste of Salt

By Martha Southgate



September 2011
288 pages



My name is Edmund but everybody calls me Tick. I'm an alcoholic. I've been in and out of these meetings too many times to count. I know these damn steps by heart. I just can't live 'em. Well, I don't have the willingness yet. Don't know when I'm gonna get it. I'm sitting here, sharing, because I'm trying again. It's been three months since I've had a drink. I've been drinking since I was about fifteen. Problem is, I like drinking. It's cost me almost every damn thing I have—but I still love that first taste. It's what comes after it that's bitter.

I was married for a while. My ex-wife's name is Theresa. She has long light-brown dreadlocks and the sweetest smile I've ever seen. I know it's hard to believe, looking at me now, that I was once something. That I once had something. People who loved me and looked out for me. A job that I liked. A wife whose good heart I miss so much. Even though I won't ever see her again.

We met at a bar, of course. Ironic, right? I was on my third beer, feeling loose and good. She was with her girlfriends, nursing a seltzer. She didn't drink much, I found out later. She wasn't preachy about it. She'd drink wine or a gin and tonic once in a while—she didn't mind drinking. But when she started to get drunk, she would stop. She had the brakes everybody in this room doesn't have.

We got to talking. She worked at the Cleveland Museum in the Africana Department as a curatorial assistant. I had just started with the Cavs, at the lowest rung on the ladder of the trainers. But I loved being at all the games, hanging out with the guys (even though, a lot of the time, I was just fetching ice and watching the more senior trainers work). I loved how we'd all go out after a game for a beer or two or four. I loved how the night would come on and then pass. It was 2000 and things were looking pretty rough for the Cavs. LeBron? Well, he was still a high-school kid—one hell of a high-school kid but not ready to go pro yet. So wasn't much happening with the Cavs. Even so, being around the players, around guys who play at that pro level—well, there's nothing like it. You can't imagine it. I was twenty-five. Everything was in front of me. Sometimes somebody would have a little bit of cocaine with them and they'd do it in the bathroom of whatever bar we were in. I didn't do it every time, but I liked it. I liked the way it cut through the warm fuzziness of alcohol, gave everything a hyped-up brilliant sheen. Made me feel like the king of everything. It was a great combination. It was a great time. I was young and black and good-looking and about to be accomplished. That's when I met Theresa.

It all went very smoothly for a long time. There was the dating, there was the love, there was the living together, there was the wedding, there was us, and through it all, I was drinking, but it was just part of the job. Just part of the job, I told her. I told myself that, too. I told myself that as we started to fight more and more. I told myself that as she began to turn away from me when I tried to kiss her and then I stopped trying to kiss her. I told myself that when one night coming home late and fuzzy-headed from beer and cocaine turned into two, and then three and then four and then I lost count of how many nights, oh hell, it was every night, every night I was away from her, every night I was drinking. I told myself that as I shouted at her, a man I didn't even recognize myself to be, shouting like a madman at my sweet brown wife with her sweet brown dreads and her delicate hands. I told myself that as she cried. I told myself that as she packed her bags, as she laid her hand on my cheek and said, "Baby, I can't live like this anymore, and you won't get any help. So I've got to go." I stood at the door for a while after she left, looking at the space in the parking lot of our apartment building where her car had been. And then I went back to our apartment and opened the refrigerator and got a beer, sharp and cold and kind, and one by one by one, I drank myself into my second stint in rehab. And that's why I'm here. I don't want to pick it up again. I want to get out of my mother's basement. I want to stay sober. I wish I didn't have to take things one day at a time. I want to know right now that I'm gonna stay away from that bottle for good. I wish to God there was some way to know for sure.


When Sarah asked me to leave, I wasn't all that surprised. That blade had been coming toward my neck for a while. Can't say I didn't deserve it. It was almost a relief.

When she told me, I was sitting at the kitchen table, just sitting with a beer. When I thought about it—I couldn't stand to think about it much—I knew that I was spending a lot more time that way than I ever had before. I got up and went to work and I always did a good job and I went to that factory and lifted those doors and supported my family and held my head up. But it used to be that I did other things after work. I read all the time. And I had a wood shop downstairs. I made the chairs in the kids' bedrooms— my father taught me when I was just a kid myself. I'd always liked making something from the ground up, especially after a few years on the line, when all I did was make part of something, part of something, part of something. When the kids were little, I played with them sometimes. And of course, I used to try to write. It was hard. But I used to try.

But by the time she asked me to leave, the main thing I did with my time was watch TV, letting it wash over me. It was getting hard for me to concentrate on a book. I was always wondering how long it would be before I felt like it was okay to get up and get another beer. Sometimes I could stay focused enough to reread something light. Nothing difficult like Spenser or Milton or Ellison. But things that went down easy and that I found soothing, stuff like James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett. I read The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Maltese Falcon over and over. For a while, I told myself that it was because I was tired from work or the kids were driving me crazy or this or that or the other. But the truth was, I couldn't concentrate. I was letting the books go, as much as I loved them.

Here's what Sarah said to me, her eyes shining so positive and clear that it made her beautiful to look at. I never told her that I felt that way still. But it made me happy to look at her, even as she said: "Ray, I need you to leave."

I looked up from where I'd been staring at the table. "What do you mean you need me to leave?" I slid my hand across the table, feeling the aged smoothness of the wood. It calmed me, somehow.

"I mean that you have sat around here with that damn beer for all of our children's childhoods. I mean that no one has touched me in ten years except the kids. I mean that you've gained thirty pounds and you smell like a brewery and I don't even want you near me." Now she started crying, standing there in her immaculate kitchen, in the home we made together, where we used to love each other. Where I loved her still. But I wasn't doing right. I never did right anymore. She didn't try to wipe away her tears. "I mean that I miss you but it seems like there's no getting you back, so you might as well go on and leave altogether. I've still got some kind of life to lead. I've got to lead it without you. I don't want to. But I have to."

Even though I knew she was right, I hadn't reached bottom yet. Not yet. So this is what I said—I'll never forget it. It took a long time to forgive it. I took a swig of the beer and said, "What do you mean, you have to? Haven't I been here, right here, putting up with these kids and putting up with the way you run the house and never doing what I want to do?" I started shouting. "What I want to do for all these years. I could have done something, if it wasn't for…" I trailed off. What was I gonna say? What were those great things I could have done? How did they—this woman that I loved and these kids we made together—stop me? They hadn't stopped me. Suddenly, I felt exhausted. "I'm sorry, Sarah." I took a step toward her and she backed away like I might hit her. Something I'd never done in my life. But then, she didn't know me anymore. I didn't even know myself. "I want you out of here by tomorrow," she said, her voice deadly level. "I'll tell Tick and Josie."

I didn't have another word to say. I just turned away from her and walked up the stairs.


My name is Ray and I'm an alcoholic. It took me a long time to be able to sit in a room like this and say those words. I had to lose almost everything I loved before I could say that. I had to cause so much damage before I could say it.

Sometimes hitting bottom isn't a dramatic thing. There isn't a car accident. There isn't a death. There is just the moment when you sit there with the bottle and you say to yourself, "I can't do this anymore." I had that moment in the dirty, depressing apartment I moved into after Sarah, my wife, asked me to leave. I couldn't sleep—I'd had a few—and I found this old picture of me and Sarah. It must have been taken not long after we met. I had a book under one arm and the other arm around her. We were smiling at each other like two people who had spent the night spooned together and woke up happy to be together, eager for what the new day would bring. How could I have thrown her away? I rolled over, got out of bed, and dug out the phone book. I called and got the address and time of the nearest AA meeting. It wasn't until the next morning. I sat awake the rest of the night, getting drunk, watching television, catching broken moments of sleep while sitting up. And then I went to that meeting, still smelling of beer. I didn't know what would happen next. But at least I walked through the door.

Once you get willing, then things can begin to open up. That's how it's been for me, anyway. I slipped once, a few years ago—started thinking I had it all under control. But after that, I surrendered again and good things started to come. I've got a life now, volunteer down at the library, got friends in these rooms, got stuff going on. But not everything's right. Some wounds take longer to heal.

I've got a daughter. Her name is Josie. She's grown now, a marine biologist; studies fish, studies the ocean. I'm so proud of her. When she was a little girl, she was always fascinated by the water. I used to watch her out in the backyard. She doesn't know that I ever looked at her that closely. But I did, sometimes. She could turn on the hose and watch that water run out of it for hours on end. Or when I had to water the lawn, she always wanted to help me: to hold the hose or be a part of it somehow. Her brown legs all covered with sparkling drops of water, such a beautiful child.

One time, when Josie was eleven or so, she talked me into going down to the beach with her. I was pretty deep into the drinking by then, too; it was definitely an everyday thing. But I could still be persuaded by her smile.

I was a little high, just feeling good, not over the edge or anything. And it was a beautiful, sunny day, and she had been riding her bike around the block the way she did. She loved to do that. I was sitting on the porch, watching the day go by, and her mama and her brother, Tick, were off somewhere, and she pulled her bike up in front of me and said, "Daddy, you wanna go down to the lake with me? You never go. Wanna go with me today?"

And I said yes. I got into the car and settled a beer in a paper bag between my knees. I thought it would be nice to look at the water and hold it and watch her and sip. She looked at the bag once, but she didn't say anything. Just hopped into the front seat next to me. She was getting leggy, looking more and more like her mama every day. She wore her hair in two braids, and one was coming undone. She had a serious look on her face. "So, little miss," I said, "what is it you do at the lake so much?"

She turned from the window to look at me and her face brightened. "I like to skip rocks. And I like to look at stuff I find. It's not like the ocean. I really want to see the ocean sometime. There's way more stuff living in the ocean. But sometimes I can see a good fish or some vegetation or something." Vegetation. How about that? Eleven years old and talking like that, so smart. But the kind of smart she was seemed to have no end. I had my limits and I wasn't all that interested in the physical world, in understanding it and finding out where each piece of it fit together. She was. She wanted to know every bit of it. Started keeping lists of things around her—leaves, rocks, the different animals she saw—not that we had many, living right in the center of the city. But whatever she saw, she wrote down as soon as she could write. And you couldn't keep her away from those nature shows on TV. Anything she could watch she would, especially stuff about the ocean. She spoke again, interrupting my thoughts: "I like the water on my feet, too. The way it feels. I love the way it feels to be underwater." She fell silent. "How come you don't like the beach, Daddy?"

"Didn't grow up around it. Don't like being wet." I took a little taste. Growing up like I did, down south in one of those blink-and-you'd-miss-it little towns, I never did learn to swim anyway. She didn't know that, and I was embarrassed to tell her. Sarah had made sure that the kids knew how to swim. We both thought they needed to learn everything they could; that they should go to good schools and learn everything that would help them feel comfortable wherever they went. I'd spent so much of my life feeling uncomfortable. I didn't want that for my children. "I'm glad to be going there with you though, little bit. Real glad."

She smiled a small smile. We pulled into the parking lot and got out.

There were just a few cats out fishing, casting their lines over and over again into the greenish water. The air was very clear—"Fresh as if issued to children on a beach." That's what Virginia Woolf wrote in Mrs. Dalloway. I like her stuff, especially To the Lighthouse. I like a lot of writers that people don't think a guy like me would like. We got out of the car and Josie ran down to the rocks along the shore, yelling, "Come on Daddy, come on!" I followed slowly, still sipping, still feeling pretty good. It was, I dunno, my sixth beer? My seventh?

She was taking her shoes off and wading into the water. She wasn't afraid at all. I stood on the shore, a safe distance from all that water, just watching her. The sound of the waves was kind of nice, I had to admit. I found a rock to sit on—didn't want to get sand in my pockets. And I didn't go so far as to take off my shoes. Josie ran and splashed and picked stuff up and put it down, perfectly content. I don't know how long this went on. Peaceful.

After a while, she came up to me and grabbed me by the hand. "Come on in, Daddy. Just take your shoes off. It's really great, you'll see." And she squatted down, like the little girl she was, and exuberantly started untying my shoes.

I nearly kicked her in the face. That's how fast I got up. She fell over backward onto her rump and looked up at me, already starting to cry. "No, damn it. I hate the water. I'm not going in there. If I want to take my shoes off, I'll do it myself. Damn it. Damn it. I don't want to go in the water, okay?"

Her face, her beautiful face just crumpled. I would have given anything to explain. I would have given anything to have that moment back and be gentle with her. I would have given anything not to have done what I'd just done. But I was drunk and I couldn't stop. I couldn't think. I ain't gonna blame it on the booze, because that's the kind of cop-out I've learned not to take in these rooms. No, I hurt my child myself. Me and my drunk ass. I was so scared.

I couldn't let her see that. So I let her cry in the sand for a little while instead. After a while I said, "We better get on back, Josie. Your mama's gonna wonder where we are. Stop, girl. You aren't hurt." And that's all I said. That's all I ever said. That's the way I left it. If only I could have explained. I think that's when I started to lose her. Right at that moment.

I've got a son, too. Name of Edmund, but we call him Tick. He takes after me. Smart as you please—and a stone drunk. I don't know when it started. I was too drunk myself to see at the time. I couldn't help him. I couldn't even help myself. And I hadn't let go. He's drunk away almost everything now, and he uses other stuff besides. It breaks my heart. He's sober for now and I pray for him, but I don't know. I don't know if he's got what it takes to stay clean. It's a long road and he's got to walk it. No one can walk it for him—I learned that in these rooms. Even so... Lord, how I wish I could do it for him. With all my heart I wish it.